Reviewby Lauren Orsini,
Mobile Suit Gundam AGE
Blu Ray Collection 1
It all began in the year A.G. (Advanced Generation) 101, when the Unknown Enemy attacked the space colony “Angel.” The impacts of “The Day Angel Fell” sparked what would soon be known as the One Hundred Year War. This seemingly endless battle would greatly alter the course of the Asuno family: starting with Flit Asuno, who was only a kid when the war began, and concluding with his grandson. The one thread linking these three generations: the Gundam, a family heirloom—and formidable weapon.
It's fitting that Mobile Suit Gundam AGE, a show all about generations, marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new one for the Gundam franchise. It was the first Gundam series to simulcast on YouTube during its run, something that has now become standard. Its very format, featuring three generations of Gundam pilots, is an unsubtle nod to the linear order of pilots Amuro, Kamille, and Judau in the first three Gundam shows created. This 2011 show acknowledges its roots while heralding the franchise into a new, well, age.
Its very origin wouldn't have been possible for a less established franchise. Gundam AGE was supposed to be a video game, nothing more, when Sunrise gave the green light to game studio Level-5 (of Professor Layton, Ni No Kuni II, Yōkai Watch fame) to create an original concept video game involving Gundam. But Level-5 CEO Akihiro Hino, a big fan of the Gundam franchise, wanted to do more than just build a game. In a 2011 interview with Famitsu, Hino said he slipped in a plot summary along with his game proposal, and Sunrise executives invited him to make an anime to go along with the game. The result: the first Gundam series with a story supervised by the founder and CEO of a video game company.
Still, this thoroughly modern Gundam show isn't without its growing pains. Childlike character designs clash with a classic Gundam plot with elements that are definitely not for kids. Don't be fooled by these fresh young faces because the death count is as high as ever. This is a good looking show but the tone is decidedly off. Partly stuck in the past as a faithful homage to all the Gundam shows that came before it, partly breaking into the future with its own visual style, eclectic mecha designs, and catchy soundtrack, it's a show stuck between two eras.
Mobile Suit Gundam AGE is a story in which “three destinies will form history” but the first of two Blu Ray releases contains two of those, neatly concluding at the end of the second generation arc. I've got no complaints about the 1080p widescreen transfer, and the collection covers the bases of what fans expect from a Blu Ray—clean openings and closings, plus the original promo and commercials for the series. This promo recreates scenes from first episode of 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam so loyally that it can't possibly be a coincidence, and it's an early indication of what to expect from this show: a plot that will remind established fans of earlier Gundam shows to the point of predicting major plot developments, without adding too much of its own material.
In the story arcs of both Flit Asuno and his son, Asemu Asuno, a young but preternaturally talented pilot must use the Gundam to fight for the adults around him long before he discovers a reason to fight on his own. The idea of adults recruiting a kid to fight to resolve a mess they've made is a timelessly Gundam one, and one which Gundam AGE is in a unique space to comment and double down on—by the time of Asemu's arc, Flit is a grown man compelling his own son to fight the way he was once made to. So why doesn't this development deliver a bigger impact? I blame the tonal shift that occurs between Flit and Asemu's stories. Flit is a powerless orphan who has to pilot the Gundam whether he wants to or not, or else people around him will die—and some of them still do. Asemu is a privileged schoolkid with two living parents, whose only motivation is to catch up to his father. Flit is out for revenge. Asemu just wants the people he loves to be happy, even if one of them is his arch rival. There are some continuity issues, too: adult Flit is almost indiscernible from the child we knew before. The enemies he fought before have taken on a new name and new tactics. In many ways, Asemu's perspective doesn't only signal a new story arc, it's a new show altogether.
In both arcs, the number of homages to earlier Gundam material are delightful at first but quickly become tiresome as they make up a greater and greater percentage of the material. Flit is a clear nod to Amuro while Asemu's inferiority complex resembles Kamille's. Asemu's rival, Zeheart, wears a mask and pilots a red mobile suit that is said to be “3 times faster” than usual. Pilots with superhuman skills, called “X-Rounders” in Gundam AGE, are an obvious stand-in for Newtypes. Flit is caught in a love triangle between the girl next door and a girl with ESPer powers, just like Amuro was. And not to give away too much of the storyline, but how long until the Earth Federation stops starting colonies elsewhere, only to forget about them? (This same plot point also happened in both Turn A Gundam and Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ.)
These franchise references are played straight all while coming out of the mouths of cutesy, cartoony Professor Layton-style character designs. So while this isn't a kid show, it sure does look like one. As expected from Level-5, the visuals are consistent and well animated, they're just so darn childish. Additionally, they've got some of the goofiest voices to match, to the point that it's sometimes distracting from the story (Dieke and Grandpa are major offenders). For that reason, the English dub is especially hard to listen to—not because they didn't do a good job, but because they did: the dub's flawless Saturday morning cartoon delivery highlights the tonal dissonance even further. Awful on-the-nose naming conventions (a mob boss named Don Voyage, a falling mobile fortress named Downes) add to the unintentional humor of a show that wants to be taken seriously but sure doesn't look it.
More originality comes through in Gundam AGE's strong musical score (but not its side effects, which are reworked from Mobile Suit Gundam Seed). I especially love the second opening song, “Sharp #,” which is catchy from the first listen. I also can't forget to talk about the show's mecha design, which is pretty generic for the “good guys” but deliciously alien for the bad guys, whose suits look like reptilian beasts from outer space (complete with prehensile tails years before Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans did it). It's the show's strengths that make me wonder what could have been if it didn't rely so much on its source material. While all of Gundam's most memorable titles include some element of homage, the more that can differentiate yet another “teen in a mech” narrative, the better. The bones of a brand new addition to the franchise are here, but Gundam AGE never quite stands on its own.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Dynamic character designs and some truly wild mecha concepts. Looks great and has a soundtrack that will get inside your head.
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